Transcript: 5th EASLCE webinar: Literature and/as Cultural Ecology

Transcript: 5th EASLCE webinar: Literature and/as Cultural Ecology


Transcript: 5th EASLCE webinar: Literature and/as Cultural Ecology

February 27, 2014, 4:00 PM Central European Time

Host: Prof. Dr. Hubert Zapf, University of Augsburg, Germany






Moderator: Hanna Straß, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität München, Germany

Guiseppina Botta, University of Salerno, Italy

Sibylle Machat, University of Flensburg, Germany

Anna Persson, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Stefan Schustereder, Erasmus Lecturer, University of Poznan, Poland

Nicole Seymour, University of Arkansas; Carson Fellow, Rachel Carson Center, Munich


The following is a transcript of the talk given by Professor Zapf on Literature and/as Cultural Ecology. The talk refers to four texts that have been read by all participants in advance. After Professor Zapf’s introduction we discussed the poems “I heard a Fly buzz“ by Emily Dickinson, “Anecdote of the Jar“ by Wallace Stevens, and Linda Hogan’s “To Light”

Prof. Dr- Hubert Zapf

Literature and/as Cultural Ecology 


Hello everybody, and thanks very much to Hanna Straß for organizing everything for chairing the seminar. It’s a pleasure and honor for me to discuss some of my ideas on a cultural ecology of literature with such an international group of scholars, ecocritics, and indeed poets.

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I assume you have had a chance to look at the articles and texts I suggested as a basis for the discussion, but it seems nevertheless useful to begin with a few summarizing words about the approach of a cultural ecology of literature that I have tried to formulate in these essays, before we can discuss questions connected to them, and perhaps also look at some of the texts later.

In what is chronologically the first essay, “New Directions in American Literary Studies,” I  position a cultural ecology of literature within various directions of ecocriticism related to five different dimensions – a sociopolitical dimension of Ecocriticism in which texts are examined in terms of their explicit or implicit environmental agendas, with the aim of raising ecological awareness and of changing social and political practices, including gender roles in different versions of ecofeminism, or class and environmental justice issues in postcolonial versions of ecological thought; an anthropological or ecopsychological dimension in terms of addressing psychological disruptions and civilizational traumas resulting from the ecological crisis;  an ethical dimension of ecocriticism in which a prevailing egocentric and anthropocentric value system is put to the test from an awareness of alterity or “answerability”(Patrick Murphy) to human and nonhuman “otherness;” an epistemological dimension, in which linear–monocausal concepts of thought, agency, and time are questioned and superseded by nonlinear concepts of complexity and recursive feedback loops; and an aesthetic dimension which examines the ways in which fictional, imaginative texts can be of relevance to an ecologically redefined model of humanity and of human culture.


It is this latter dimension, which is a main focus of a cultural ecology of literature, but as you will have realized, the aesthetic dimension is not opposed here to the other four aspects of ecocriticism but rather seen as encompassing them on a different plane of ecocultural self-representation and self-exploration. It is the assumption of  this approach that imaginative literature deals with the basic relation between culture and nature in particularly multifaceted, self-reflexive, and transformative ways, and that it produces an ‘ecological’ dimension of discourse precisely on account of its semantic openness, imaginative intensity, and aesthetic complexity.

A primary reference for the approach, then, are actually the literary texts themselves, which are considered a form of cultural knowledge in their own right. But there is also a more general theoretical frame of reference, which consists of several sources: the transdisciplinary approach of a  ‘Cultural ecology,’ which was founded by Julian Steward, and then extended beyond its bio-anthropological origins by Gregory Bateson as a key figure, whose Ecology of Mind (1973) bridges the epistemological divide between the natural and the human sciences by exploring common patterns of mind and life beyond disciplinary boundaries; in particular, Bateson’s concept of metaphor and its significance for poetic speech appears to be useful in its translation into literary studies.

Also helpful is Peter Finke’s notion of cultural ecosystems that he develops from Bateson’s ecology of mind and from Jakob von Uexkuell’s distinction between Umwelten and Innenwelten, which Uexkuell ascribes to nonhuman as well as to human life. (Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere 2009) In a dialogue between evolutionary biology, social systems theory, and linguistics, Finke maintains that the characteristic environments of human beings are not just external but internal environments, the inner worlds and landscapes of the mind, the psyche, and the cultural imagination which make up the habitats of humans as much as their external natural and material environments.(Finke 2006) Cultural ecology in this sense is not a deterministic application of biological ecology to human culture and society but takes into account the semi-autonomous dynamics and distinct forms of self-organization characterizing the evolution of culture, consciousness and the human mind. Literature and other forms of cultural imagination and cultural creativity are necessary in this view to continually restore the richness, diversity, and complexity of those inner landscapes of the mind, the imagination, the emotions, and interpersonal communication, which make up the cultural ecosystems of modern humans, but are threatened by impoverishment from an increasingly overeconomized, standardized, and depersonalized contemporary world.

Yet another theoretical source of a cultural ecology of literature is literary and aesthetic theory, and specifically the literary anthropology of Wolfgang Iser, who replaces the binary distinction between fiction and reality by a triadic functional relation between the Real, the Fictive, and the Imaginary, in which the Fictive is a cultural form that mediates the institutionalized pressures of the Real with the anarchic and amorphous impulses of the Imaginary.(Iser 1991) I translate this model into the context of cultural ecology by extending Iser’s self-referential anthropological Imaginary into an ecological imaginary, which in literary texts represents a source of counterdiscursive scenarios to the predominant systems of civilizational order.

Against this background, literature can itself be described as the symbolic medium of a particularly powerful form of “cultural ecology,” (Zapf, 2006, 2008) in the sense that literary texts have staged and explored the manifold and complex interactivity between culture and nature in ever new scenarios, and have derived their specific potential of innovation and cultural self-renewal from the creative exploration of this boundary. What this means is that literature is not only a preferred discursive site for representing and negotiating the culture-nature-relationship but that in its aesthetic transformation of experience, it acts like an ecological force within the larger system of culture and of cultural discourses. I demonstrate the triadic model of cultural-critical metadiscourse (the response of literature to dominant civilizational systems), imaginative counter-discourse (the semiotic empowerment of imaginary alternatives), and reintegrative interdiscourse (the bringing together of the excluded with the civilizational system) in some major novels from American literature, in the attempt to illuminate the narrative dynamics of the texts in terms of their cultural-ecological dynamics. Clearly, then, this model emphasizes the culturally transformative rather than the mimetic dimension of texts.


While the 2010 essay in Ecozon@ gives a short survey of the reception of cultural ecology as a research paradigm, in the other two essays, I try to explore two important transdisciplinary contexts of the approach more closely – textual ethics, and life writing. The article on “Literary Ecology and the Ethics of Texts” argues that there has been some kind of realignment of ecology and ethics in recent developments of literary and textual theory, and that this transdisciplinary dialogue can enrich both the discourses of ecology and of ethics. I demonstrate the potential contribution of literature to this dialogue by discussing first a poem by Emily Dickinson, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” which we have on our list of texts today, and then three American novels in which the eco-ethical interconnection between the local and the global becomes the focus of attention.


The most recent article on “Cultural Ecology and Literary Life Writing” applies cultural ecology to the question of literature’s contribution to our knowledge of life, in relation to other forms of knowledge such as it is produced in the currently highly successful life sciences. I try to illuminate this by a reading of a central text of the ecocritical canon, Thoreau’s Walden, alongside with Herman Melville’s enigmatic urban narrative “Bartleby the Scrivener” on the other. These texts are complementary versions of a cultural ecology of literature, one pursuing the human immersion in nonhuman nature but always also reflexively relating it to mind and culture; the other foregrounding the human imprisonment in self-created structures of civilization but in the end relating them to their wider biosemiotic context of living interconnections. “Bartleby,” as I try to show, is a prime example of a text in which a high degree of aesthetic openness and indeterminacy corresponds with a particularly powerful form of cultural ecology, exploring the extreme tensions between the cultural system and its exclusions, between the untranslatable singularity and the inescapable connectivity of life as a generative signature of textual creativity. This is one important, more general point of my argument, namely that it is the aesthetic dimension itself, the radical defamiliarization and imaginary reinvention of life, that constitutes the ecological relevance of literary texts for the larger culture.


Thank you for your attention, and I now look forward to discussing with you some of these ideas and texts.

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Suggested Further Reading:


Bateson, Gregory. A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

—. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton, 2002.

—. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.

Brandt, Stefan, Winfried Fluck, and Frank Mehring, eds. Transcultural Spaces: Challenges of Urbanity, Ecology, and the Environment in the New Millenium. Spec. issue of REAL. Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 26 (2010).

Buell, Lawrence. “Ecocriticism: Some Emergent Trends.” Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring/Summer 2011): 87-115. 

—. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.

—. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Coupe, Laurence, ed. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2002.

Dürr, Hans-Peter. “Naturwissenschaft und Poesie.” Die Zukunft ist ein unbetretener Pfad: Bedeutung und Gestaltung eines ökologischen Lebensstils. Freiburg: Herder, 1994: 96-119.

Ecozon@. Online Journal of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and Environment.

Finke, Peter. “Die Evolutionäre Kulturökologie: Hintergründe, Prinzipien und Perspektiven einer neuen Theorie der Kultur.” Literature and Ecology. Spec. issue of Anglia 124.1 (2006): 175-217.

Gaard, Greta, Simon Estok, and Serpil Oppermann, eds. International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2013.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2004.

—, ed. Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Gersdorf, Catrin, and Sylvia Mayer, eds. Nature in Literary and Cultural Studies: Transatlantic Conversations on Ecocriticism. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.

—. Natur – Kultur – Text: Beiträge zu Ökologie und Literaturwissenschaft. Heidelberg: Winter, 2005.

Goodbody, Axel. Nature, Technology and Cultural Change in Twentieth Century German Literature: The Challenge of Ecocriticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

—, and Kate Rigby, eds. Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011.

Gras, Vernon W. “Why the Humanities Need a New Paradigm which Ecology Can Provide.” Anglistik: Mitteilungen des Deutschen Anglistenverbandes 14.2 (2003): 45-61.

Gymnich, Marion, and Ansgar Nünning, eds. Funktionen von Literatur. Trier: WVT, 2005.

Hornung, Alfred, and Zhao Baisheng, eds. Ecology and Life Writing. Heidelberg: Winter, 2013.

Iovino, Serenella, and Serpil Oppermann, eds. Material Ecocriticism Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 2014 (forthcoming).

Iser, Wolfgang. The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Literature and Ecology. Special Issue of Anglia. Ed. Hubert Zapf. Anglia 124.1 (2006).

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.

Müller, Timo. “Between Poststructuralism and the Natural Sciences: Models and Strategies of Recent Cultural Ecology.” Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 21.1 (2010): 175-91.

—. “From Literary Anthropology to Cultural Ecology: German Ecocritical Theory since Wolfgang Iser.” Goodbody and Rigby 71-83.

Müller, Timo and Michael Sauter, eds. Literature, Ecology, Ethics: Recent Trends in Ecocriticism. Heidelberg: Winter, 2013.

Murphy, Patrick D. Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies: Fences, Boundaries, and Fields. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009.

Oppermann, Serpil. “Theorizing Ecocriticism: Toward a Postmodern Ecocritical Practice.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 13.12 (Summer 2006): 103-28.

Rigby, Kate, and Axel Goodbody. “Introduction.” Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches. Eds. Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011. 1-14.

Rueckert, William. “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Eds. Cherryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1996. 105-23.

Slovic, Scott. Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility. Reno: U of Nevada P, 2008.

Soper, Kate. What Is Nature? Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Volkmann, Laurenz, et al., eds. Local Natures, Global Responsibilities: Ecocritical Perspectives on the New English Literatures. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Westling, Louise. “Darwin in Aracadia: Brute Being and the Human Animal Dance from Gilgamesh to Virginia Woolf.” Anglia 124.1 (2006): 11-43.

—. “Merleau-Ponty’s Ecophenomenology.” Goodbody and Rigby 126-38.

Wheeler, Wendy. “The Biosemiotic Turn: Abduction, or the Nature of Creative Reason in Nature and Culture.” Goodbody and Rigby 270-82.

Zapf, Hubert, ed. Kulturökologie und Literatur: Beiträge zu einem transdisziplinären Paradigma der Literaturwissenschaft. In collaboration with Christina Caupert, Timo Müller, Erik Redling, and Michael Sauter. Heidelberg: Winter, 2008.

—. “Literary Ecology and the Ethics of Texts.” New Literary History 39.4 (2008): 847-68.

—.  „Cultural Ecology and Literary Life Writing.“ Hornung, Alfred, and Zhao Baisheng, eds. Ecology and Life Writing. Heidelberg: Winter, 2013: 3-25.

—. Literatur als kulturelle Ökologie: Zur kulturellen Funktion imaginativer Texte an Beispielen des amerikanischen Romans. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2002.